Trappers & outfitters push bill forcing wildlife groups to pay $50K bond
(Missoula Current) Those who make money off Montana’s wildlife are using legislation to not only liberalize hunting and trapping but also to hinder any groups wanting to protect wildlife.
On a party-line vote, the House Judiciary committee passed a bill to penalize people or organizations that would sue Fish, Wildlife & Parks to reduce or nullify hunting or trapping methods or quotas.
Sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, House Bill 419 would require plaintiffs to post a bond of more than $50,000 if they wanted to use a temporary restraining order or injunction to stop hunting or trapping while a lawsuit works its way through the courts, a process that can take one to three years.
The plaintiffs would lose the bond money if they lose the case. Temporary restraining orders usually apply for only 10 days to two weeks. Injunctions often extend until the judge rules on the case.
During the hearing Thursday, Bozeman attorney Matthew Monforton said he wrote the bill in response to a lawsuit brought in November by WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote to challenge Montana’s wolf regulations.
When the judge granted the associated restraining order, he briefly returned Montana’s regulations to what existed prior to the 2021 Legislature, reducing the quotas around Glacier and Yellowstone national parks and limiting hunters to five wolves each. Trapping wasn’t affected, because the judge removed the restraining order a day after trapping season started.
“The environmentalists and their attorneys got away with it. There were no sanctions, and they lost nothing,” Monforton said. “You’re going to hear from folks who did lose something, who were shut out of their constitutional right to hunt because of this ex parte, one-sided temporary restraining order.”
The eight proponents who followed Monforton included two leaders of Ravalli County’s Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, three leaders of the lobbying nonprofit Outdoor Heritage Coalition and Citizens for Balanced Use, and others represented the National and Montana Trapping associations and the Idaho-based Foundation for Wildlife.
Many accused wildlife groups of using out-of-state money to pay for "frivolous" lawsuits and not having “skin in the game” - although wildlife advocates say the skin they stand to lose is that of the affected animals.
Belgrade resident Kris Killorn said people who book a hunt could lose a lot of money if a temporary restraining order is granted. But under the bill, outfitters’ customers wouldn’t get the money, although they can buy travel insurance. Only parties that apply to a judge could potentially get some money.
The two opponents of the bill represented groups that chose not to join the November lawsuit.
Mark Cooke of Wolves of the Rockies explained that his organization was primarily regional, not national, and focused on advocacy and education, so it didn’t have a lot of money for lawsuits because it didn’t fundraise.
“Wildlife belongs to all Montanans, and until recently, we used to use the best available science to manage wildlife. That has stopped. In 2021, a lot of anti-wolf bills came forward that concerned us,” Cooke said. “The senior leadership of FWP will not listen to us; the commission of FWP will not listen to us. What choice do we have but to turn to litigation?”
Questioning who has more out-of-state backers, KC York of Trap Free Montana said most of the people lobbying the committee in favor of HB 419 were from out-of-state. Members of the Judiciary committee received a slew of emails last week from people across the nation due to an appeal on the website “Howl For Wildlife.”
California Bay Area entrepreneur Charles Whitwam launched the Howl For Wildlife website a year ago “as a multi-pronged advocacy platform to fight anti-hunting legislation,” according to a Free Range American article.
The site is designed to publicize “anti-hunting” bills in every state legislature and to blast emails on each bill to all relevant state officials. Every click can result in dozens of email actions, so a minority can appear to be a majority, and the organization provides incentives for participation.
Howl For Wildlife's HB 419 appeal, titled “Montana bill would make anti-hunters post minimum $50,000 bond to help prevent frivolous lawsuits,” claimed “hunters lost out on opportunity, outfitters had to refund client fees, and the lawful and biological sound management of wolves was denied.”
The webpage allows anyone to enter their name and email address - no street addresses or state of residence - and “1 of 77 different messages will pop up” for the person to choose to send to committee members.
Howl For Wildlife also put out an appeal related to House Bill 372, which would amend the Montana Constitution mainly to protect trapping. Safari Club International also put out announcements to its membership. Various addresses from emails sent to committee members show the participants in both appeals hail from everywhere, including Oregon, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Monforton verified that during questioning after explaining that outfitters wouldn’t have to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of FWP to get the bond money; they could just tell the judge that they are affected.
“Right now, these folks have no way to collect damages that they’ve suffered, because a lot of these groups are out-of-staters. It would be very difficult for them to try to collect a judgment, even if they were to get one,” Monforton said.
Hinkle said there’s precedent for the bond, because Montana already allows judges to require bonds for injunctions on state timber sales, although Hinkle mistakenly said it was for loss due to wildfire. In the 1990s, the Legislature passed a bond for injunctions affecting “industrial operation or activity” - construction, mining, timber, and grazing - on state trust land, because it could reduce revenue for the school trust. The bond in that case is $50,000 or less.
Before the committee vote on Friday, Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, said she liked the intent of the bill - discouraging malevolent lawsuits - but the method was problematic so she couldn’t support it. Instead of creating a potential monetary penalty, which sets up a pay-to-play situation, Zephyr suggested that the law be changed to require plaintiffs to present significant evidence early in the case in order to earn an injunction.
Similar requirements exist for SLAPP cases, baseless lawsuits that organizations or companies use to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend their innocence.
Hinkle insisted his bill didn't stop anyone from suing, but they'd have to pay for an injunction, because "the process has become the punishment." The bill now moves to the House floor.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.